1509 - 1564
The list of ailments from which Calvin suffered
is enough to make a person wince: kidney stones, nephritis, hemorrhoids, migraine
headaches, chronic pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, spastic colon. Theodore
Beza, his successor in Geneva, wrote of him, "A brave spirit was the master of a
feeble body." Nevertheless, Calvin persevered throughout his suffering, working in
the last, most difficult years, preaching until eight days before his death. Undeflectable
in his vocation, he finally had to be carried into the pulpit in Geneva in a chair. A
remark in the dedication to his Commentary of II Thessalonians says it all:
"My ministry . . . is dearer to me than life."
Jean Cauvin (his name was later latinized to
"Calvinus," then abbreviated to "Calvin") was born in the town of
Noyon, France, fifty miles northeast of Paris. At age eleven he left home for the capital
city, where he enrolled at the Collège de la Marche. Here he began his study of Latin
(the language of every educated person in the sixteenth century), mastering the language
by memorizing the rules in verse a total of 2645 lines! Advancing to the Collège
Montaigu, he was exposed to the gospel-oriented theology of the German Reformers. His
father began to think better of training his son for the priesthood and sent him to the
Faculty of Law at the University of Orléans. The university conferred its Doctor of Laws
degree upon him at age twenty-three. Yet Calvins first love was not for the law but
for the languages and literature of antiquity. He was becoming a classical humanist
scholar. (All of the major Reformers were first trained as humanists, the sole exception
being Martin Luther.) His first published work, Commentary of Seneca, was an
exploration of political ethics.
Then in 1534 something happened to turn the
humanist scholar into a theologian, preacher and pastor. Always disinclined to
self-advertisement or exhibitionism, Calvin remained reticent about the derails of his
conversion. All we know is the little he tells us in the preface to his Commentary on
the Psalms: "God subdued me an made me teachable."
From this point on Calvin openly associated with
men whose theology was suspect. Suspicion quickly hardened into persecution. Two hundred
were arrested in one month; in the next three months twenty were executed. The king
promulgated a decree against "Lutheranism." Calvin fed to Basel, Switzerland.
Once in Basel Calvin began his major work, the
Institutes of the Christian Religion. The first edition appeared in 1536, and it was
steadily expanded until the final edition of 1559. Designed as a primer for Reformed
theology students, it became the most significant writing of the Reformation era. Its
influence was incalculable. While that influence was perhaps most visible in Scotland and
the Netherlands, the sway of the Institutes is evident in many different contexts
and countries: the Anglican prayer book, seventeenth-century Puritanism, New England
Congregationalism, and the theology of the Eighteenth-Century Awakening. (John Wesley said
there was "but a hairs breath" between him and Calvin.)
Calvin left Basel for Italy, only to be hounded
back into Switzerland. In 1537 he was appointed pastor of one of Genevas churches.
Although he was the leading thinker of the Reformation and its most prolific writer, he
was not a university recluse who was guaranteed solitude for the purpose of research and
writing. Rather, he was a pastor who had to preach (every day!), visit the ill, bury the
dead, adjudicate congregational disputes and counsel parishioners who had sinned
A Frenchman living in Switzerland, Calvin was
suspected of being a spy in the service of the French government. Genevan mobs
demonstrated outside his house, firing guns and threatening to drown him in the river.
City officials allowed him three days to leave. He went to Strasbourg (at this time not
part of France), the chief city of refuge for persecuted Protestants form France. Even
though the city was largely German-speaking and his congregation small, Calvin was happy
here, not least because it was in Strasbourg that he met and married his wife, Idelette de
Now devoid of the leadership of the man it had
expelled, Geneva degenerated rapidly. The city council urged him to return. He declined,
writing to a friend, "It would have been far preferable to perish once and for all
than to be tormented in that place or torture." Yet return he did, and spent the rest
of his life in the Swiss city.
Calvins output was immense. In addition to
the Institutes (1700 pages) he wrote commentaries on almost all the books of the
Bible: many tracts and treatises discussing important theological controversies; hundreds
of sermons (342 on Isaiah alone!); and numerous letters. Every Christian, Calvin insisted,
must possess a measure of doctrinal sophistication or be at the mercy of every theological
ill-wind. Pastors in particular must be provided with the tools needed for life-long study
in service of the Word of God.
In the course of his vast writing he imparted
that shape to the French language which it bears to this day, doing for the French
language what Shakespeare did for English.
Calvin penned his last letter to his dearest
friend, Guillaume Farel, only days before he died: "It is enough that I live and die
for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and in death." His grave
is unmarked. Yet his imprint on such diverse subjects as art, economics and
politics is indelible. Still, it is as the theologian of the refugee that Calvin
shines preeminently. And it is here that he will once again sustain so many people in
present-day denominations who have learned what it feels like to be exiled.